Does the millennium matter?

Whenever I teach one of our theology survey courses, I begin the semester with a promise. If I can’t provide a compelling reason that some theological issue makes a significant difference for life, ministry, or theology, we won’t spend time on it. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth talking about, only that it must not fall in that top tier of issues that we need to stay focused on in a relatively brief survey course.

Right now, we’re working through eschatology. And, on tap for tomorrow afternoon – the millennium. At the end of our last class, I asked the students to wrestle with whether they thought that issues relative to the tribulation really mattered all that much. So, we’ll start with that tomorrow. But, by the end of class we’ll be discussing views of the millennium, and I’ll be asking the same question again.

So, what do you think? Do views of the millennium really make a significant difference for life, ministry, and/or theology? Or, are the different millennial views really just ways of keeping under-employed theologians busy so they’re not out causing problems? (Nothing is worse than a bored theologian.) Where do you put the millennium on your list of theological issues? Is it something that you’re willing to debate over, or do you see it as a non-issue that is only worth speculating about when it’s late and your internet connection is down?

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 29, 2010, in Eschatology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I see it as a non-issue.

    Is there anywhere other than the Book of Revelation where it is mentioned? It would seem to me that the numerical value of one thousand years meant something to the original hearers that escapes us today. In an effort to reconstruct that meaning we have given it all kinds of interesting spins.

    That being said, since I have never seen it as an important subject, I haven’t given it much time.

  2. Millennium itself is not a critical theology. But i find that people’s millennium views tend to cause a warped understanding of the Kingdom of God. Now getting the kingdom of God right is critical.

  3. Millennialism is pretty much a fringe view, isn’t it? Both the Catholic and Orthodox churches condemn millenarian theology. I suppose that your students need to know it exists, but it seems to negatively influence Christians who believe in it strongly.

    • I should probably have titled the post “Do views on the millennium matter?”, since I would include amillennialism as a perspective on the millennium.

      But I definitely wouldn’t say that millennial views are “fringe,” particularly not in America where the millennium (and surrounding issues) are an important part of much popular theology.

  4. Your question makes me think of Stanley Grenz’s “The Millennial Maze.” He regards each of the three broad millennial positions of pre-mil, post-mil, and a-mil as leaning toward certain attitudes Christians tend to hold toward history’s trajectory. Pre-mil lends itself to a more pessimistic attitude–things are going to get worse before they get better; post-mil to a more optimistic attitude–things are on their way toward getting better; a-mil to a more realistic attitude–things are always going to be both good and bad. I would venture to say that such attitudes have a practical impact on how the church view’s its place in the world and its potential for cultural impact.

    • I have read Grenz’s book. It does a good job of showing how people’s millennium views were governed by the politics or the power struggles of the day. This is why i think it is important first for people to understand the Kingdom of God and how it stands against all the powers of the day. We also need to understand how history is heading in the direction of the new creation.

      Grenz also did a good job of showing how most “historical premils” in the early church might actually end up being post-mills today.

      • The historic pre-mill and the old-school post-mill, properly see that the covenant is in reality given to national Israel, and that we Gentiles are also covenantally.. ” were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree.” (Rom. 11:17)

        The issue is not so much the millennium alone, but the covenant promises of God. Does God keep “covenant”? Yes, of course He does. It is the covenant people who fail oftentimes…(Heb. 10:29). The covenant/covenants have both blessings & curses.

  5. Maybe you need to confront Paul D.’s (and others) statement first? “I suppose that your students need to know it exists….”

    • I read that comment as meaning that students need to know that millennarian theology exists (not that they need to know the millennium itself exists, which would be the very point in question). And, I would definitely agree. I argue in class that even if you personally don’t find a particular eschatological issue to be all that significant (esp. tribulation and millennium), you still need to be aware of the issues because they are likely to be significant issues for at least some of the people in most churches.

  6. Marc,

    In my opinion Millennial Theology is a real hermeneutical issue. Certainly the OT and Jewish theology has much historical ideas here, not to mention texts like Ezekiel 40-48. Lot’s of scripture for only a pure spiritual understanding? It is very interesting that the classic historical Churches have been very supersessional since the Reformation. But also very interesting is that there were many Ante-Nicene Christian Chiliasts, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin, Victorinus, Lactantius, etc.

    People and students should read Charles Hill’s book: Regnum Caelorum, Patterns of the Millennial Thought in Early Christianity. Here he gives also the Non-Chiliasm Regnum Caelorum Caeleste history. Perhaps here is the real importance of Cyprian, who was an early a-mill type. The point is that there appears to be both party’s in the early Church and Fathers.

    I am for what its worth, now historic-pre-mill (post-trib.) myself. Again, the issue is certainly important for one’s hermeneutical and covenantal standing. Not to mention one’s position on modern Israel somewhat. And let me say here also, that at the turn of the 20th century there were many Anglican clergy and theolog’s that were pre-mill. Note Henry Alford, etc. The list is great!

  7. Yes, I think it can be integral to an overall theology and approach to ministry. I remember reading through Vos & Ridderbos at WTS, and how the already/not yet experience of the current age in redemptive history actually made a lot of sense for thinking about sanctification. Amillenialism was seamlessly woven into the system of theology that way.

  8. I don’t understand, esp. for guys and gals who are students of the Bible, how this issue isn’t of upmost importance. I.e. How does an exegete interpret passages like Ez. 37 or a whole slew of passages w/o having some semblence here? Or how does one interpret Revelation w/o a view here? The history of interpretation is saturated with such things, and for good reason.

    Now, I could understand if folks commenting here were more into Dogmatics, like Barthianism (or even Torrancean); but since I would assume that most commenting here are not (excuse my presumption), how can it be said that an understanding here is non-significant relative to a hermeneutical schema?

  9. Well, we just finished class a little while ago, and I had intended to offer a summary of where the discussion went relative to how important they thought the millennium was. Sadly, we didn’t make it that far. We spent while discussing why eschatology as a whole is important and then focused the rest of our time summarizing the main millennial positions and strongest arguments in favor of each. So, I sent them home with the assignment of reflecting on whether this is all much ado about nothing, or if it actually matters in some way. I’ll make sure to update this after class next week.

  10. Bobby, no one is disagreeing that there are texts relative to the millennium (or amillennium) in the Bible. So, this isn’t a discussion of whether the topic should be completely ignored. Rather, it’s a discussion of its relative importance. Is it a central theological issue that we really have to get right, or is it a secondary or tertiary issue that falls much further down the food chain?

    • Marc,

      I caught that. Although my initial response was in response to at least one of your previous commenters.

      I think your question is a good one! I would place it down the “funnel” of importance (as one of my profs at Multnomah would say it [Rex Koivisto, you know him ;-)] relative to say, Christology; but of course there are co-ordinate implications that are directly related, I think, between how we understand the relation between the “now and not-yet” of the Kingdom and how that finds analogous intersection between the union of God and man in Christ.

      I suppose how one thinks of the creation’s original telos will play an important role in how one understands the millennial question and its relative importance in the grand scheme of things. And further, how one understands the relation between Israel and the Church (cf. Rom. 9–11) will also play a significant role to answering your question; since the “Davidic Kingdom” (and thus Christology and the triplex munus) has central theological implications for how we understand the out-working of God’s history of redemption. Insofar as the millennial question is related to these points, then I would say it could have primary import (dialectically understood). . . . So I’ve changed my tune through the unfolding of this comment 🙂 .

  11. Bobby, I like how your comment unfolded. I think this absolutely one of those discussions where many people start out presuming that the issue really isn’t that important. But, after a while, you begin to realize how many related issues are involved. I personally think of the millennium itself as a secondary theological issue. But, I think that how you view the millennium has the potential to influence the way that you tell the whole story of redemption (i.e. how creation, Israel, Church, Kingdom, and eschaton, among other things, are related in God’s redemptive plan). And that, of course, impacts everything about life and ministry.

  12. A janitor came into a classroom where he encountered a theology professor working late. The janitor asked the professor what was keeping him up so late.

    The professor said, “I’m preparing for a big lecture on Revelation tomorrow. But, I guess you don’t know too much about that.”

    The janitor replied, “Sure I do. Jesus wins.”

    IMHO it does matter to be aware of the variety of views out there. As I understand it there are four main popular schools of thought on how the grand scheme of end times events play out. Personally, I think they’re all wrong. Ultimately the janitor has the best understanding. I certainly think eschatology is a vital topic, but to be too dogmatic about any one perspective stifles the mind and quenches the Spirit. God’s gonna do what God’s gonna do whether we understand it or not. The people of Jesus’ day certainly didn’t see coming what he did. IMHO the important aspect of eschatology is not the technical details of some presumed timeline, but the importance of God’s plan for the outcome which is hope. Hope cannot ever be divorced from faith and neither stand long without love.

  13. Sam, I’ll have to check Grenz’s book out again (it’s been a long time) to see what he says about historic premil. I’m usually pretty skeptical about arguments regarding what some person would have thought in some other situation. But, it sounds like an interesting argument nonetheless.

  14. Lance, I definitely agree that the big themes of eschatology are where the real heart of the value lies. In you ministry, my students always got frustrated with me because when I taught through Revelation, I always focused on the overarching themes rather than the “chronological” details that they wanted to get into. And, those themes are really why I argue that eschatology is so important for life and ministry.

    So, amen to the idea that faith, hope, and love are what this discussion needs to be about.

    But, there are different ways of unpacking those big themes that I think also make a difference. For example, I think the fact that God “wins” by redeeming his physical universe from bondage is a huge theme. In the history of Christianity, many have downplayed the physicality of the eschaton and, consequently, have lost something I think is important for understanding the big themes. And, I think some of the same can happen with the millennium. Any of the major views can be unpacked in ways that have unfortunate consequences for how we understand the key eschatological themes. (I also happen to think that they can also all be unpacked in ways that are much more adequate.) So, while I tend not to be as concerned about the details of a person’s particular approach to the millennium (e.g. what order things happen in), I’m much more interested in how that shapes the way they understand the narrative of redemption as a whole and the eschatological end toward which all of this is headed.

  15. The way you state the question keeps it in the discussion, for the millennium is in fact extremely important for theology. You have to understand it and views about it to understand what many people think and have thought.

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